Can Clark fill expectation gap?

Can Clark fill expectation gap?

As MindShare reaches its fifth birthday, it would seem fitting at first sight to expect some degree of public celebration.

The headlines should surely be about MindShare's successful race to fourth place in the UK billings league thanks to support from top clients such as Nestlé, Boots and Ford.

Yet for those working inside the trendy purple UK offices in Strand, the reality of MindShare's fifth year is quite different.

Over the past six months, the agency has faced a barrage of criticism from those who claim that the media network has failed to deliver on its promises.

When MindShare was launched in 1997, following a merger of the JWT and O&M media operations, it promised advertisers that its enhanced buying clout would not be the agency's only point of difference.

It said its agenda was to maximize on and enhance the global planning models of both networks and invest in new talent in the areas of sponsorship, interactive and research services.

Although the agency has hung on to the number four slot in the UK billings chart, it has been criticised for its failure to shake up the area of strategic thinking or maximize on the services of its sister WPP companies.

Negative descriptions of MindShare have ranged from "solid but unremarkable" to that of a "Formula 1 car stalled on the grid".

A series of disparaging headlines has left the industry asking whether the criticism is justified or the result of unrealistic expectations.

The agency's woes were compounded in July when indomitable chief executive Simon Rees decided to jump ship, which led to the drafting in of Asia-Pacific boss Kelly Clark as his replacement.

Given that he has had five years overseeing the roll-out of MindShare's inaugural market in the Asia-Pacific region, no one questions Clark's commitment to the brand.

However, as a relative stranger to the crucial UK market, it will be his ability to fill the shoes of Rees and make his own mark on the business on which he will be judged.

After six weeks in the hot seat, what exactly has the new face of MindShare got up his sleeve?

Clark seems reluctant to reveal even the slightest insight into his plans for the network. This silence is somewhat at odds with his opinion that the network has suffered from what he describes as "a failure to market itself as well as it might".

Asked if recent criticism is justified, however, Clark comments with an air of realism, which could be a sign of things to come.

"There may have been a bit of a gap between the expectations at MindShare's launch and the reality of what could be achieved in a certain period of time," he concedes.

 He adds: "Clearly I have a lot to learn. But we have some of the best brains in the business, so I have some excellent teachers."

Clark claims to be listening with intent to the guidance of various clients as he sets his agenda for the agency's future.

"I'm taking a lot of advice from our senior clients and I'm obviously concerned about what they tell us," he reveals.

"They're always pushing for improvements and we'll keep pushing to improve."

Among the fiercest criticism Clark must face up to is the feeling that MindShare has failed to tap into the full potential of its WPP siblings.

One senior industry source says: "MindShare has never managed to deliver the house-of-media proposition or tap into the potential of The Henley Centre or Millward Brown, a factor that was so fundamental to its launch promise five years ago."

Clark insists that the house-of-media vision is real, citing close relationships with clients including Ford, Boots, Nestlé and Britvic as testament to this.

The agency has also come under pressure recently to reveal the extent of its plans to merge buying operations with sister WPP media network Mediaedge:cia.

"MindShare has watched rival global networks make real progress in the area of volume negotiation - the industry needs to know what is going on at WPP," says another source.

According to Clark, it is simply a case of listening carefully to the needs of clients and making the correct decisions at the right times.

"One of our huge priorities is to intensify our relationships with other WPP brands, including Mediaedge: cia," he says.

"We're looking at joint buying opportunities, but it's still early days for us, regardless of what our competitors are up to - I don't feel MindShare has been left behind."

Although the agency has grown its billings by 70% since launch and has managed to sustain a healthy record for client retention, the past year has not been an outstanding one in terms of new business.

Former director of marketing and new business Andrew Lord has recently shifted his focus toward overseeing the development of MindShare's branded entertainment division, Shine M.

According to insiders, this shift has had a detrimental effect on the agency's marketing strategy. Well-respected industry figure Sandra Collins, the former Optimedia head of new business, has been brought in to address this issue.

Once again, Clark accepts the agency's shortcomings in this area but gives little away about whether the organization has a strategy to address the problem.

"A lot of the good things that have been happening inside this building haven't been marketed as well as they could have been, but this is about to change," insists Clark.

"New business is absolutely the fuel that fires an agency's growth and it's something we could be better at.
Sandra has been hired to ensure a new focus on that area is put into place."

Observers are also likely to keep a close eye on MindShare's developing relationship with new clients such as Hutchison 3G, which could set a new agenda for the agency.

It could well be that MindShare will be judged on its innovation in this particular area.

Clark claims that a focus on beefing up links with sister WPP companies, strengthening relationships with existing clients and ramping up its marketing and new business drives will be his top priorities.

Wherever the details of Clark's master plan lie, one certainty is that it will be received with interest both by his inner circle at MindShare and by external observers alike.

Perhaps the promises made by MindShare in the heady days of 1997 can still be met, after all.

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